This Too Shall Pass


Let it go this too shall pass

At the bottom of this post is OK Go’s awesome Rube Goldberg Machine video for their single “This Too Shall Pass”. I’m able to embed it in my blog and share it with any readers because OK Go recently left their former record company EMI in order to self-produce under their own label, Paracadute. EMI don’t allow embedding of videos that feature the music of the artists they represent as it doesn’t generate any revenue for them (YouTube pays a small royalty, but only when people watch the videos on the YouTube site) – this meant that even the band themselves couldn’t post the video on their own website, and that the viral mechanisms that had made their previous videos so popular (see Here It Goes Again and A Million Ways) were unavailable to them. As lead singer Damian Kulash explains, their record company was cutting off its nose to spite its face, because the record industry in general doesn’t understand the basic mechanics of the internet.

The internet has brought a massive step change in the way that consumers interact with markets, and the music industry has been no exception. Never before has there been such diversity or immediacy for consumers, nor such a large community of people who can interact and share information. For music lovers, this has come to represent an opportunity for music to be created and distributed in different and innovative ways, while blogs and social networking sites offer the chance to feel much closer to the musicians who create the music than before. For the record companies and those with a vested interest in intellectual property however, the freedom of exchange that the internet enables has come to represent a deeply problematic forum for users to bypass profit mechanisms, to violate IPR and to establish their own, unregulated distribution networks.

This clash of interests has come to a head in the UK this week, and while the record companies seem to have triumphed, internet users are incredulous at the way these “dinosaurs” seem to refuse to recognise the potential the internet offers for marketing and distribution, preferring instead to cling to outdated ideals and modes of production and to criminalise those who are potential consumers of band merchandise and gig and festival tickets. However the music industry’s resistance to change is by no means unprecedented. Writing about the move towards a market economy in 17th century Europe, economist Robert Heilbroner notes the following example:

“The capitalists of the day face a disturbing challenge that the widening of the market mechanism has inevitably brought in its wake: change.

…the button makers guild raises a cry of outrage; the tailors are beginning to make buttons out of cloth, an unheard of thing. The government, indignant that an innovation should threaten a settled industry, imposes a fine on the cloth button makers. But the wardens of the button guild are not yet satisfied. They demand the right to search people’s homes and wardrobes and fine and even arrest them on the streets if they are seen wearing these subversive goods.”

Robert Heilbroner (2000) The Worldly Philosophers, 7th ed.

It isn’t hard to spot the parallels with the Digital Rights Bill that has been rushed through Parliament this week, and that, among other measures, threatens to cut off internet access for anyone found downloading or sharing copyrighted material. The Bill was passed despite widespread public disapproval, and, according to many MPs and commentators, without adequate time for proper debate or scrutiny. But will this really be a win for the record companies? They may be wiser to take a lesson from the ultimate end of the button makers guild – after all, despite their efforts at the time, people have been wearing cloth buttons for a great many years now without fear of prosecution.

Economists know only too well that change is part and parcel of the way markets work, and even such aggressive resistance from the record companies is likely only to delay the inevitable. Anthropologist Daniel Miller describes in Material Culture and Mass Consumption (2nd ed. 1991) how manufacturers from the 1920s to the 1960s “attempted to construct a highly predictable, homogenized and consistent market, which would allows for longer factory runs and higher profitability”, however this attempt failed in the face of consumer demand for greater diversity of goods, and industrial production was forced to adapt to the trends it had attempted to dictate. The relationship between consumers, producers and demand is by no means clear cut and there is a lot of debate in social theory on this point, but anthropologically demand can be seen as a process of negotiation between the two sides, that is played out in the arena of a fluid and responsive market. If one side tries too hard to maintain the status quo, the negotiation breaks down. The internet provides a solid ground for organising resistance, but so far the demands of the consumers have fallen on deaf ears. However, the internet has also shown itself to be a space where consumers can interact more directly with the producers – the bands and artists who create the music in the first place, and if the record companies refuse to meet them on this ground they could easily write themselves out of the picture altogether.

The UK Government maintains that the Digital Rights Bill is a necessary measure to protect the creative industries from collapse. However, stifling consumer voice is no way to ensure creativity remains possible – quite the opposite – particularly as everyone in this debate seems to agree on the point that good artists and musicians should be able to make a living from their work. Consumer demand for the products of the music industry is stronger than ever, particularly in the face of the hugely effective marketing medium the internet affords, but the demand for a change in the way these products is delivered is just as strong, and this demand will continue to change as the market, the internet and the world continue to develop. The record companies need to accept that change is integral to the way a capitalist economy works, and that like everyone else in the world they will need to adapt and keep on adapting to survive, because, at the end of the day, this too shall pass.

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